Station 33 firehouse: One of the busiest in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Mr. Mitch Topal
  • 166th Airlift WIng

Our TAG wanted a story about our base fire house because they had become one of the busiest in the Air Force. After hammering out a mutual aid agreement with New Castle County, emergency response activity skyrocketed. Working primarily with two local volunteer fire companies – Minquedale station 22, and Wilmington Manor stations 28 and 32 – Station 33 made 684 runs in calendar year 2020, and 784 as of November 9, 2021 – an increase of 15% year over year, and there are almost two months to go.

It wasn’t my first time covering events at Station 33. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, I had escorted numerous base tours, many of which included a tour of the fire house. The kiddoes seemed to like it even more than touring one of our C-130s. I had also interviewed one of the firemen when he returned from a deployment to Iraq and produced a photo essay when they took possession of their new Rosenbauer Panther P-23 water cannon, a 77,000 lb. behemoth designed to fight aircraft fires.

When I walked into the Station 33 fire house on the morning of 9-November for the 0700 briefing, the smell of breakfast was wafting through the air. Scrambled eggs, cheese, sausages, and hot sauce. Lots of hot sauce. Varieties that range from the bottom to the top of the Scoville scale.

I dropped my camera gear at a desk assigned to me for the day – a day for 166th Airlift Wing PA to ride along, observe and document what was to be a “typical” day for Station 33 – then headed into the kitchen for the morning briefing with Chief Jim Knightly.

“Hey Mr. Topal, do you want some eggs?” asked Patrick Burns, Assistant Chief of Operations for C Shift.

“Sure,” I said. The briefing was informal, and the men continued to cook and eat.

I plated a good-sized portion of cheesy scrambled eggs, then perused the hot sauce collection for something that was hopefully near the middle of the Scoville index.

“If my mouth starts burning uncontrollably, I guess I’m in the right place,” I quipped as I grabbed a seat at the table. “You may have to call Wilmington Manor to assist.”

The men laughed. I finished my eggs then plated a second helping. Nobody went hungry in this house. If people kept eating, they kept cooking.

“This kitchen is a no rank zone,” said Chief Knightly explained.

“Everyone should feel free to speak their mind with no judgment. I remind people that this is a fire house, not a fire station. We’re a brotherhood and we treat each other like family as you would at home,” he added.

Knightly was a Master Sergeant who became a full-time title five civilian fire chief upon his recent retirement from the Air Guard.

After some introductions and casual conversation, I was brought out to the garage and given a set of gear to try on. The fire helmet, turnout pants and jacket fit perfectly.

“If we get a call, don this gear, and stick close to the driver after we arrive on scene. He’ll let you know where you can deploy with your cameras to get the shots you need without getting in the way,” explained Patrick Burns.

I thanked him then took a selfie.

Quickly, I removed the bulky gear, placed it next to my assigned seat in the fire truck, then headed back to my assigned desk to work offline. There was no public Wi Fi.

An hour later Chief Burns came in to let me know they were planning to take one of the trucks out for some recon into a couple of high-density residential areas and to be ready to depart at 10:00. I grabbed the two GoPro cameras that were stashed inside my camera bag, set them for time-lapse recording and mounted them inside the cab. I also checked the settings on my trusty D-810 to take the still photos. Burns said that they had no calls the previous day and were hoping they’d get one so that I could grab some exciting footage for the video and feature story I had planned.

It wasn’t to be. The weather was too nice for car crashes and not cold enough for house fires, which were often caused by improper use of fuel-based heaters that people foolishly brought inside to keep warm.

At 10:00 things started to move quickly. Men were getting their gear and heading into the garage. I picked up my D-810 and climbed into the back seat of Engine 33 before we raced off.

Our first stop was at the student housing complex at Wilmington University. We stepped out of the truck. The men scoped out the scene while I took a few photos.

Patrick Burns explained, “The first place we went to was Wilmington University because we have a mutual aid agreement with Wilmington Manor. We go into the higher hazard areas which are the most frequent kind of calls. And the hazard being that they are multi-residential with more people living there which gives them more of a priority.

“What we were looking at was hydrant location and pre-fire planning. We need to make sure the hydrant locations are correct on all our maps so that when there’s a call, we know exactly where they are. We sometimes find that they aren’t marked correctly so we can move it on the map.

“We were on a call a while back at night and the hydrant wasn’t immediately visible. We went back today to confirm its location and found that it was obscured by shrubs. There was also an entry gate that could have blocked our ingress. Knowing what we’re getting into before the call helps everything run smoother and possibly saves lives.”

When finished notating where the hydrants were located as well as the ingress and egress points, we climbed back into the cab and headed south on Route 13. Soon, we arrived at Castlebrook, a sprawling apartment complex with several multi-residential units. Again, we jumped out and surveyed the area.

When they were satisfied with what they learned, the firefighters and I headed back to the truck.

“Do you like tacos? Asked Jesse Cowell, the firefighter that was sitting next to me in the back.

“Sure do,” I replied.

“Great. We’re heading to Rivera to pick up some lunch,” he added.

Rivera Taco Express, a small food truck, catered to first responders, LE and military members with a sizeable discount.

The proprietor handed us several bags, which we took then climbed into the truck and headed back to base.

After lunch, Patrick Burns invited me to ride along with them to the Delaware National Guard’s army aviation hangar where their fleet of UH-60 Blackhawks are housed. They had planned to do some fire and rescue training with some of the Blackhawk maintainers.

The firefighters climbed into several vehicles (including the Rosenbauer P-23), while I rode in Engine 33 with the same crew I’d been with all morning. We raced across New Castle Airport, traversing runways and taxiways, to get to the army aviation hangar. The ride filled me with an adrenaline rush. As a kid, I never imagined I’d be doing something like this for a living. I felt like an 8-year-old playing in the world’s biggest toy box!

Station 33 provides all the fire and emergency services for New Castle Airport, the 166th Airlift Wing, and Delaware National Guard Army Aviation in addition to their mutual aid agreements with Minquedale and Wilmington Manor.

Inside the Army Aviation hangar, several Blackhawk UH-60s were in various phases of maintenance. One of the maintainers led our group to one of them, and started to open the various covers and hatches, revealing the technical wizardry that makes it fly. There were hydraulic and fuel system lines, engines and gear boxes, radar components and bundles of electrical wires.

Soon, the men were climbing all over the helicopter.

Patrick Burns explained, “So, as we did before, it was pre-fire planning. We were learning things while in a cool calm environment where we’re getting professionals to teach us all about it so that when an emergency happens and they’re not around, we can handle it ourselves – at least in the capacity that we need to. So, we’re not going to be pros at it, but we can safely recover someone or understand the hazards that we need to mitigate with that type of aircraft. We do the same thing with the Air Guard’s C-130s.”

After about an hour, the men seemed satisfied with what they’d learned. I asked them to line up in front of the Blackhawk for a group photo before we exited the hangar and climbed back into the firefighting apparatus. The diesel engines started up and we raced down the runway, taxiways and into the Station 33 fire house apparatus bay.

The growth and success of Station 33 comes with the support of leadership.

“That’s a great thing for the military, for the airport, and for the community. Leadership throughout the base from Chief Knightly up to the TAG has been a great part of that – to allow us to get more experience and to allow us to become more seasoned firemen,” he said.

“It also helps us out in the community which has become a recruiting tool. Before, when we posted a full-time position, we’d get very few applicants. Now, we get 20 or 30 because people see us out in the field. It’s going to change this department even more in the next five to ten years.”

“We hope to get more in the area. I see that happening in the future. We need to become better ourselves and then build our relationships with them.”

Although their primary purpose is to provide fire prevention and protection services for structural and aircraft responses, on both the civilian and military sides of New Castle Airport, Station 33 also have the chance to save lives in the surrounding communities.

“I would say that about 95% of our emergency call volume is off this base,” explained Burns.

The mutual aid agreement with New Castle County while also providing fire and emergency services to the DRBA for Wilmington Airport and Army Aviation, all contribute to Station 33’s evolution to becoming one of the busiest firehouses in the United States Air Force.

As for the ride-along during a bona fide call, I was invited to come back any time.